Sutapa Basu is a compulsive bookworm and an irrepressible story teller. Her debut book - Dangle, a psychological thriller, was published by Readonamia in 2016. In the same year, her short story was awarded the First Prize in the Times of India's nation-wide WriteIndia Contest. She wrote a brilliant story to the prompt given by Amish Tripathi. Her last book, Padmavati, has been winning hearts all over the country. She has also contributed to numerous anthologies.
Her third book is on another historical figure - the conqueror Genghis Khan - the one who consolidated the scattered Mongol clans into one nation and became the conqueror who ensured that the Empire of Mongolia ruled the world. Genghis Khan's fearsome reputation of being a ruthless invader preceded him and I'm sure like me, many others are eagerly waiting to read Sutapa's book.
I am very intrigued by the choice of the historical figure and I spoke with her about her book and writing process.
1. You began with the thriller genre in Dangle but then took the historical route; why? You didn't want to pursue thriller; Dangle was a very fast paced thriller that I enjoyed reading very much.
A: The two genres that have been my all-time favourites have been thrillers and historical fiction. My debut book was a thriller and now my second and third are historical fiction but that does not mean I am going to not write a thriller in the near future. The ideas are fermenting already in my mind. In fact, one of them is all plotted out. With Padmavati I wanted to challenge myself to write a historical fiction; the kind that I have liked to read till now and that people would like to read. I was delighted to receive mountains of positive feedback from readers.
I wanted to go further afield and decided to select a world history figure. And who can be greater than Genghis Khan? I knew it would be a demanding project but when I began the research, it was almost as if the great Khan was calling out to me. I could not but walk into his realms to heed his voice.
When I took the proposal of writing about Genghis Khan to my publisher, Readomania, he had a counter offer; a three-book historical fiction series! Why not? I thought. Since the persona of Genghis Khan has intrigued me for a long time, The Legend of Genghis Khan has to be the first of that series.
At the same time, I do not believe that as an author, I need to restrict myself to specific fiction genres or even to fiction. I am going to try my hand at all genres, both fiction and non-fiction and for all age groups, grown-ups and children. I have just one criterion: the premise must excite me, and I must feel passionately for the protagonist.
2. Padmavati and now Genghis Khan. tell me about the choice of these historical characters. How and why them? What drew you to these two? Specifically Genghis Khan - popularly known as a cruel plunderer, albeit a great conqueror but what is it about this man's life that drew you to his story?
A: The same reason has drawn me to both Padmavati and Genghis Khan. What does the world really know of both these historical personalities other than the obvious? Hardly anything. That is what triggered my research into both. I was adamant to know what made them tick; what made them into the superhero/heroine that they have been on the stage of world history.
Specifically, Genghis Khan has been only known as a brutal plunderer and a world conqueror but why did he do what he did? That was the question I was seeking an answer to. And I uncovered a treasury; the closer you get to Genghis Khan's life, the more fanatic a fan you become of the man. And world conqueror! Does the world know what that actually means? At the zenith of its power, Genghis Khan's Empire controlled one sixth of the world's total land area! No wonder he is worshipped as a demi-god in Mongolia, China and Russia!
3. Padmavati was not just retelling of history. You married the present with the past and spun a lovely tale. Are you planning something on the same line with Genghis Khan?
A: Not so explicitly as in Padmavati. With Genghis Khan, I am marrying past, present and future times of the protagonist. Still, I am a product of the, modern world so in my plotting and characterization of The Legend of Genghis Khan one may find overt shades of the Helsinki syndrome, where a captive begins to identify with and grow sympathetic to his or her captor. Readers may even argue there are hints of the opposing Lima Syndrome, the phenomenon in which abductors develop sympathy for their captives. You see, I have always delved into the psychology of my protagonists and search for the whys of their actions. All my character sketches must have some cognitive twist. Psychological trauma happened to be the premise of my first book, Dangle. It is a psychological thriller, remember?
4. Let's discuss your writing process. So you've selected the historical figure; then how do you proceed? How much reading do you do? How much time do you devote to research? Do you buy loads of books or is it all online? Did you speak with some historian to educate yourself further?
A: Foremost, I select the historical figure who will be the protagonist of my book based on the research. There must sufficient or (in the case of Padmavati) insufficient facts in the life of the historical figure to intrigue me. The next step, obviously, is to read up as many books (print and online PDFs) as I can get hold of; mainly biographies, other authors' takes on the personality and about the historical period he/she lived in. It gives me perspective and helps to substantiate the premise I want to plot.
Next, is to visit the region and places where the protagonist has lived out his/her life. I visited Chittorgarh when I was researching for Padmavati. And as I soak in the historical flavours of the site I speak to the local people there. This helped me immensely to create authenticity in Padmavati.
In the case of Genghis Khan, other than books and online research, I had the great fortune of being mentored by Dr John Man, famous historian and Mongolist. He really helped me to focus on both Genghis Khan the man as well as his times.
5.It's not easy to write about a historical figure and a time that has gone by. it needs a lot of research of what the society was at that time, how people live, ate, spoke and so many things. Don't you feel worried about the veracity & authenticity of what you write
A: Yes, it is difficult. I am very particular about the veracity and authenticity of the customs, food, language and dialect spoken, tools used and homes people lived in and the regional politics during the historical periods I want to write about. In both Padmavati and The Legend of Genghis Khan, I have written about the clothes, food, weapons, homes, customs of the times and the region. I have used numerous words of the regional language in both books for the sake of authenticity. For all of these, I have taken great care to get everything validated (to the extent that even the titles by which these personages were called by their subjects) by experts.
It was very difficult to trace an expert in the case of The Legend of Genghis Khan. I wrote to many Mongolists abroad with requests. Some replied, some didn't, but nothing satisfactory emerged. Eventually, it was right here in Delhi that I discovered the gold nugget in the person of Dr Vikas Singh, Assistant Professor, Zakir Hussain College, Delhi, one of the very few people to have studied Mongolian language at the Jawaharlal Nehru University.
There is no doubt, a lot of effort goes into researching and then validating facts, but I believe it is well worth the effort and I will keep doing it. It is my firm belief that for an historical fiction to be good, the fiction component must be like a delicate motif woven into the robust fabric of solid facts. That is the lesson I have learned from reading my favourite historical fiction writers.
6. Can you share a few interesting nugget or two about Genghis Khan as a teaser to the book? something that would arouse curiosity of the reader?
A: I was amazed to discover that despite being a ferocious plunderer, spirituality was the core of Genghis Khan's strength. He was one those rare rulers of his times who had declared that all religions be given equal respect in his Empire. According to his words quoted by historians, Genghis Khan believed there were many paths to reach the Truth. He felt each man must be free to choose his path.
Also, during times when women had no rights at all in civilized regions such as the European countries and the erudite Islamic nations, a nomad in Mongolia gave the women of his Empire rights to family property and trained women for military service.
Strange facts, aren't they?
7. How long did you take to write? how much time was spent in research? how many drafts?
A: For The Legend of Genghis Khan I spent about two months in pure research. But as I began writing, I would keep going back to the sources and also consult Dr Man. The entire first draft took me about four and half months and editorial development along with incorporation of beta-reader comments about a month more. All in all, I worked with three drafts before I handed over the final manuscript for editing.
8. What next? Do you have the next historical figure you want to write about?
A: Oh yes! I have several historical figures that I am in the process of researching. I must find the ones who arouse my curiosity. At the same time, I am dipping into non-fiction, too. There is something in children's fiction that I am looking into. And as I said the thriller plot is also maturing in the bottle. There are a lot of stories that are itching to walk the ramp.
So please buy the book. I know I'm going to. Cant wait to know more about Genghis Khan.
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